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Milošević and Šešelj in the dock: contrasting psychologies of power

By Blog Admin, on 7 January 2013

Photo: ICTY building, The Hague Wikimedia Commons

 The defences offered by former top politicians and generals of trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) can seem like rambling political bluster. However, examined more closely, they offer a revealing glimpse into different psychologies of personal power. argues Kristen Perrin

There are moments when the proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague are more closely followed by mainstream media than usual.  This commonly happens when events inside the courts are tumultuous enough to warrant international coverage, reminding some people that the war crimes tribunals relating to the Yugoslav wars of the mid-nineties are, in fact, still going on.  A recent example was the closing statement Vojislav Šešelj, former leader of the Serbian Radical party, gave the ICTY in March 2012.  Šešelj’s behaviour in the court was notorious by this point – he had gone on a hunger strike, refused to attend his own opening statement while defending himself, and taken multiple opportunities to distract, delay, and otherwise interfere with the progress of his trial.

This type of behaviour was not new to the ICTY, and was in some ways comparable with that of Slobodan Milošević when he represented himself.  Looking at transcripts from his trial, we can see that Milošević’s strategies were not mainly driven by the idea of making a legal defence, but were politically and historically charged.  This is common in ICTY trials, and its implications have been widely discussed.  However, few researchers have used ICTY transcripts to study the cognitive patterns of those on trial – that is, taken examples from the transcripts to paint a picture of the thought processes of these individuals.

Many studies of the in-court behaviour of Slobodan Milošević focus on issues of self-representation before international criminal tribunals, seeing the precedent Milošević set as a significant challenge to the concept of fair trials before international criminal tribunals.  There are major difficulties with allowing defendants to represent themselves without also allowing politically charged rhetoric from individuals with dominant and calculating personalities to take over.  Once underway, the defence strategy of these individuals tends to compromise the workings of the court, and thus the fairness of their own trials.  The question is one of rights: the accused has both the right to represent him or herself, and the right to a fair trial.  When one undermines the other, the result can have serious impacts on the power of the court, as well as wider perceptions of justice after a conflict.

How individuals on trial understand these paradoxes and try to use them strategically deserves closer examination.  Behind the drive to self-represent before an international criminal tribunal lies the psychology of personal power.  Comparing the opening statement of Slobodan Milošević and the closing statement of Vojislav Šešelj, we can identify two types of power: power over process (an individual’s attempts to undermine structural aspects of the ICTY, such as the timely nature of proceedings or accepted versions of documents and translations), and power over historical narrative (an individual’s understanding of his ability to re-write or reveal alternative versions of history).  By comparing the statements of two different high profile individuals before the ICTY, with an eight year gap between them, it is also possible to examine how perception of the court’s power changed in the minds of those on trial.

In his opening statement Milošević is uniform and relentless in referring to elements of the court as merely hypothetical, reinforcing his assertions that the ICTY is an illegal imposition of Western justice.  He is theatrical in these gestures, never once referring to the prosecution without first adding ‘so-called’.  Šešelj’s remarks toward the court, in contrast, are rooted in verbal violence.  He refers to his experiences at the ICTY as a succession of battles, stating “when I won the battle for the right to defend myself, another battle started…” (IT-03-67, 14 March 2012, 17334).  As much as Šešelj tries to echo Milošević in declaring the tribunal to be a non-entity, his language indicates that he sees it as an opponent, a strong ‘military instrument’ that needs to be fought (IT-03-67, 14 March 2012, 17330).  Šešelj’s exertions of power over process are seen primarily through these battles, and his most famous behaviour (his hunger strike, his issues with translation) are part of his arsenal.

The changing nature of the strength of the ICTY in the minds of the accused is also visible when looking at attempts to exert power over narrative.   Milošević was famous for this.  When deconstructing his efforts in this direction, a unique strategy is revealed.  He carefully builds bridges between different histories, constantly aiming to connect events of previous conflicts (primarily WWII) with the destruction of Yugoslavia.  He does this not by simple comparison, but by attempting to invoke these events in the same historical space.  For example, he makes a point of stating that the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent state by the European community happened on the 6th of April 1992, which was “on the very date of Hitler’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1941; the 6th of April” (IT-02-54, 31 August, 32171).

Šešelj, however, gives his version of history, but adds attempts to draw in a particular audience (in his case, Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti).  He presents several hypothetical situations to the court aimed at Judge Antonetti in an attempt to add him to his own line of reasoning.  He states, ‘Imagine, if you can, you in France have a lot of French Muslims.  Imagine if they said suddenly: We are not French people anymore, we are a separate Muslim nation?’ (IT-03-67, 14 March, 17343).  Šešelj has re-defined his audience in the face of the court’s power, in direct contradiction to his earlier statements that his only reason to endure his trial was for the sake of the court records, not the actual proceedings and outcomes.

The politically changed and rambling nature of the statements made by Milošević and Šešelj may seem theatrical and distracted, but it is possible to move beyond this and delve deeper into what these individuals are showing us about the leadership role post-conflict, and the evolution of the ICTY.  As other high profile individuals decide to act as their own counsel (such as the former president of Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić), it is important to keep in mind the significance of the psychology of personal power in the courtroom if we are to understand the interactions taking place there.

Kristen Perrin is a PhD candidate at UCL-SSEES.  Her primary research interests are in theories of conflict, genocide, transitional justice and human rights.  Her thesis examines transcripts from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), applying a mixture of sociolinguistics and social psychology to witness testimony from both victims and accused.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.